By Shannon Lane @shannonroselane
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Videographer / director: Brenton Oechsle
Producer: Shannon Lane, Ruby Coote
Editor: Ian Phillips
Jeff Watson from Paoli, Indiana has been a bear handler for more than 29 years.
He told BTV: "When you have bears, there’s no vacation. These are wild animals and they rule the roost.”
Jeff has been interested in bears ever since he was a young child.
He said: “I've had an interest in bears since I was a boy, I never thought I’d get a bear.
"Thirty years ago I’d been sick, I had a neurological disease, was paralysed at a young age, and when I got back on my feet I had the opportunity to get a bear.
“I thought, ‘You know what? this could be my therapy, I’ll hang out with it in the woods’, and that’s how it all began.
"I started off with one bear, Brody. He would take nine half-gallon calf bottles at a time. He started off at 8lbs, at a year old he was 400lbs, and a year and a half he was 550lbs, so I bottle fed him for three years.
"When you raise a bear, you become a surrogate mother and they won’t leave your side, they go through a lot of separation anxiety.
“This is a lot like a human being, most definitely when they’re young they see you as their mother.”
Despite having a close relationship with the bears he has raised, Jeff wants to make it clear that these animals are not pets.
He said: "I’ve always been reluctant to tell people that they’re pets because they don’t meet the traditional definition of a pet, most people don’t have pets that can kill them, but it comes with the territory, these are wild animals, apex carnivores - and they rule the roost.
"I clearly remember the first time that I realised a bear is not a dog. It was a 60lb bear cub.
“That may sound silly but most people think that if they take a wild animal, and they love it and they treat it just right that somehow you will get it to surrender its natural instincts - and that will never happen.
"You can never tame a bear. You can train one but you can never tame one."
Jeff currently had two bears on land near his home, Bob and Screech.
He told Barcroft TV: “They’re litter mate brothers around seven years of age and they came from a park in Georgia. It was a tourist attraction, and they went out of business and prior to going out of business a friend of mine had called me and said, ‘Hey they’ve got a couple of bear cubs they don’t want’.
“I didn’t pay for them, they were given to me. People ask me if I rescued them and to me that’s kind of an overplayed word.
"I took them, I’ve raised them, and I’ve loved them, and I’ve tried to give them the best life you can give a captive bear - who knows what their fate would been.”
After handling bears for a few years, Jeff soon realised his hobby was expensive - and had to think of a way to support his lifestyle.
He said: "So I started to marry the hobby with a profession. I started to do commercial work, TV shows, live appearances, and it evolved into the educational presentations where the animal itself can benefit, and the people can benefit, so I could hopefully save the lives of people - and of bears. And that’s where I’m at now."
After raising his two bears to adulthood, Jeff began thinking about how to release them back into the wild.
He said: "I worked on a program called ‘Project Grizzly’, I was trying to take Bob and Screech, two captive born, captive raised bears, to see if it was possible to release them into the wild.
"The problem with a bear in the wild is that it loses its fear of people, it becomes habituated, or if it associates people with food, and becomes food conditioned - it’s usually marked for death.
“The question was, can you take these captive born animals and make them afraid of people, and get them to stay away from people.
"The experts that we had involved said that you use conditioning with pain, like water bullets, rubber bullets, pepper spray, bear dogs and lots of different things to make them scared to death of human beings - but I couldn’t do it.
"My bears are well cared for and protected, but what we determined was that unless you implement that type of adverse conditioning, you’re not going to get these guys to fear humans.
"I love them, but I watch them. I make sure that I keep my mind where it should be.
"People ask me, 'What does the future hold for Bob and Screech?’. I’ve made arrangements if something were to happen to me, that they could go somewhere.
"But their future at this time, is to stay with me.
“I know that some people would think that that’s not healthy for them, but once they build a bond with somebody, it’s kind of hard to break that bond.”